I’m sure that if you asked Kevin VanDam to name the single most important fish of his B.A.S.S. career, he’d have a hard time nailing it down. He might not even try, but if he did he’d probably give a wise answer like “There is no single most important fish. Every one is equally critical.” Or perhaps “The next one I catch.”
Remember, this is not a guy who fishes for single fish. He doesn’t really fish for limits either. The man is obsessed with finding schools of big-as-tuna bass. Strike that – he’s obsessed with finding schools of them and then replicating that pattern around the lake.
I’m sure if you asked Ken Duke, he could tell you the exact number of bass that KVD has weighed in over the course of his career, their average weight, their full DNA sequence and other critical information that falls into the category of….facts. I can’t do that, or rather won’t take the time to do that. I’m a big picture guy. What Ken does is incredible, and I wish someone had started it years earlier, but I can’t replicate it. What I can do, though, is tell you about the trends I see in performances on tour and in the overall general mental state of the men who try to make a living out there.
So for me, the observer of the sport, it’s easy to tell you about KVD’s most important fish.
Of course it came during a win – he’s earned an even 20 of them with B.A.S.S. – so it’s not like he’s a one-hit wonder who can think of the single fish that put him over the top in a career-defining. KVD’s most important fish came during his victory in the 2005 Elite 50 event on Lake Lewisville in Texas and it weighed a then-lake-record 11 pounds, 13 ounces. The size mattered because not only would any fisherman give his last crankbait to catch one that big in a tournament, but also because nobody – except King Kong KVD, it seems – just shows up at a lake and catches records.
Look at it this way: you’ve been fishing Lewisville for 20 years and you’re pretty proud of the 9-pounder you caught a few years back (not on tournament day, of course) and all of a sudden this skinny dude from Michigan of all places shows up and on Day One catches bassquatch. You’re humbled, perhaps even emasculated, but now you know what everyone on tour feels like because he’s been doing this week in, week out to them ever since he was an evenskinnier kid.
If you’re a tour pro and your spirit wasn’t already crushed, that might’ve been the finishing blow.
Remember, he wasn’t the KVD we know today back then, at least not on his resume. He’d “only” won a single Classic. Star? Yes. Greatest of all time? Jury was still out.
While the fish was huge, its size alone wasn’t the reason it’s the most important. Instead, it’s because of how he caught it. Until then, a few people would still believe you if you called him a one-trick pony. Sure, put him on a venue that favors power fishing and he was likely to be at the top of the scorecard. But a grind-em-out derby that required finesse? He might not be at the top of your picks box. It wasn’t entirely clear to some of us that he used spinning tackle on a regular basis, so when it came out that the 11-13 fell victim to a shakey head it made some of our brains hurt. It wasn’t the only lure he used that week, but the big fish should’ve put everyone on notice that finesse was every bit a part of his game plan. He might not have liked it as much as running down the bank, Motorguide on high, burning a ¾ ounce spinnerbait, but he knew when and how to use it.
No longer a one-trick pony, at that point he became a Swiss Army Knife in a tournament jersey, with the right tool for every set of conditions.
Spirit still not crushed? That had to be the last nail in the coffin.
That was the moment when all of the other jerseys muttered a single made-up word under their breath in unison: “VanDammit.”
Up until then, you could make a colorable case that he wasn’t a favorite in a particular event. After that, you were on notice that he was a favorite in every event. Look at the fishing picks even today: If the Elites are someplace that favors a squarebill, Lowen and Short are on everyone’s team, and so is KVD, “because power fishing is in his wheelhouse.” If they go to Lake Michigan, maybe Kota and the dropshotters find themselves on a lot of lists, but so is KVD “because he’s a Great Lakes smallie guru.” Put his Nitro at the edge of the Dead Sea and you still can’t rule him out “because he’s KVD.”
If you’re one of his competitors, that kind of thinking is Kryptonite. You wait all year to get a blurb in the press about why you should do well and he’s one spot ahead of you. You have your best practice ever and he breaks out some new Strike King prototype and kicks your butt up and down the lake. You finally make it to the Hot Seat on Sunday, and there’s one guy skinny guy from Michigan left to weigh in. Not saying you can’t beat him, just that the odds don’t look good and if you admit that, he already has you down. Even if the fish wasn’t the most important in his mind, it benefitted him tremendously because of the way it played with everyone else’s mind.